A shorter version of this piece appeared in the Scotsman on 1st July.
Consider what could happen if Creative Scotland spent a little less on arts productions and a little more on developing audiences? Imagine if Creative Scotland stopped funding projects that dabbled in new technologies and instead, strategically invested in the digital infrastructure that could transform Scotland for arts companies and audiences alike.
The technologies already exist to provide a global window onto everything that is happening in Scotland – everything – every event which is scheduled to occur, in any part of Scotland, however remote, however cosmopolitan. And, such a digital network can be entirely decentralised with each performance having its own space over which they retain creative control.
In their space a company sets out dates, times, locations, synopsis, cast, seamlessly linking back into the company’s own website and much more. The result is a comprehensive fully searchable Scotland wide listings which is continuously available. Every Thursday Ticketmaster emails me details of the tickets going on sale the next day and all the other events – tailored for what I like and where I am. Where is the equivalent for the arts?
And why not a ticketing portal to all of these events with centralised security but managed from each company’s page. This would allowed the opportunity for intelligent discounting/offers to ensure capacity audiences - imagine offering additional tickets for free to reward the people who purchased tickets first, instead of discounts which encourage people to hold off from purchasing.
With a searchable listing, a weekly new tickets email, integration with company’s websites, and a ticketing portal – with all data pro-actively managed by the producing company – this already sounds a lot better than the existing fragmented set up. Yes there is “the List”, What’s on Scotland, Visit Scotland and various other listings, but all of these depend on a centralised control, have inflexible search options and are not comprehensive list – far less offering a ticketing solution.
In a digital arts network, from the audience point of view, each person would also have their space with a personalised calendar of their upcoming events (which can integrate to Outlook/Facebook/Twitter). Additional resources – music, video, podcasts, cast details/pictures/text which can be released in the countdown to the performance like an education programme pitched at a personalised level. People can invite friends, arrange to meet up for drinks or dinner, before or after a performance – at open tables – to put the “social” back into life, write reviews, maintain an archive of the productions they’ve been to and, above all, know what is going on and when the tickets go on sale.
Audience are not passive. Of course the Scottish Arts Council will say they’ve always attended to audiences but here are the priorities from their 2009/10 Business Plan
1. increase the scope and quality of our support to artists
2. secure the foundation of Scotland s artistic development
3. create flexibility to support the new and the innovative
4. create opportunities for participation in the arts
5. build a culture of co-operation with partners and the arts community
6. make the transition to Creative Scotland.
None of this is really addresses the need to develop audiences – don’t let anyone pretend it is – no excuse will do.
Why does it matter? Recently we went to a fantastic NTS production of Peter Pan at the Festival Theatre in Edinburgh. It wasn’t a capacity crowd. It was a Saturday night. At the moment the five National Arts Companies receive £24 million directly from the Scottish Government which gives a further £62 million for the Scottish Arts Council/Creative Scotland plus a couple of million more for the Expo fund - that lot totals up to £88 million of public sector spending in a time when everything is under review.
My argument is simple. If Creative Scotland took bold, radical steps to build audiences, audiences that paid, the resultant increase in revenue would mitigate the coming cuts.
Why should the arts be state funded? It’s an old argument that we’ve had before and I am unambiguously in favour of state support – where it is essential. But where steps could be taken to readily increase revenues, investing in such strategies should be a clear priority. Clearly a single theatre company cannot set up a Nationwide digital strategy (though the role of Festivals Edinburgh in relation to the various Edinburgh Festivals is pertinent) but a National Arts funding organisation could.
The new Creative Scotland can to do better than the old SAC, take on the opportunities the new digital technologies offer – cheap, reliable, universal, decentralised, egalitarian and democratic. Supposing the infrastructure sketched above cost £2 million to build, maintain and (importantly) market, would that be worth it? I believe so because investing in the audience is the most effective way of securing the future of the arts. And, besides, once it’s up and running you can sell the whole shebang to the French.